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Outriders demo preview: Behind a dreary prologue lies a cathartic and crunchy co-op shooter

Outriders
(Image credit: Square Enix)

It was around eight minutes into the Outriders demo when I realised I hated myself. Or rather, I hated my Outriders character; an avatar I had spent a considerable amount of effort customising to look as much like myself as possible. In my mind, Alexikins was a lovable dork who enlisted in the military as part of a drunken prank, only to discover that years in games journalism had actually made him pretty nifty with a rifle, despite his pacifist leanings underscoring every tour of duty with an uneasy tension. 

But this Alexikins was far from loveable. Spouting off military commands to inferiors, awkwardly reminiscing on his time as a "street rat" back on Earth, and offering lines like "I know my way around bullets, not children" without a hint of irony, his one-note persona and alpha male utterances made me realise why other live service games and MMOs keep their playable heroes silent. How can I feel like this is my character when they already have their own established identity, especially when that identity is horrendously unattractive?

It's the first mistake that Outriders makes in its mandatory prologue, which sets the stage for People Can Fly's new IP with a linear set of storytelling beats before opening up the full world to the player, and anyone who wants to join them in co-op. It's not just that this prologue is bad, but misrepresentative; a poor first impression of what the real Outriders experience has to offer, and an immediate put-off before the game has even really begun. Make it past that opening chapter, however, and Outriders slowly reveals itself to be a competent live service shooter with some real crunch to its bones.

Something something chosen one

Outriders

(Image credit: Square Enix)

Despite only lasting around an hour, the Outriders prelude feels like a lot longer, with plenty of walking, talking, and watching of exposition-heavy cutscenes, none of which are particularly compelling, and often laughably cringey. People Can Fly's Starship Troopers meets Gears of War set-up is a fitting archetype for a live-service third-person shooter, but it's archetypal nonetheless, and the game's writing does nothing but make those cliches painfully clear. 

The long and short of it is that your Outrider, a veteran soldier, has been graced with special powers by a mysterious entity on the alien planet of Enoch, which humanity has decided to claim as its new home following the decimation of Earth. Your newfound abilities could be the key to helping your people fight against the various enemy factions on Enoch, though the lines between good and evil aren't so clear cut. 

It's all familiar video game stuff, but People Can Fly begins that story with a surprising degree of solemnity, despite having proved a knack for satire and self-deprecation in 2011's Bulletstorm. The result is an uneven start to a story that wants to play a core part of the Outriders experience, a story which admittedly does begin to lighten up once it's established its opening act, with a few moments later on in the demo that had me genuinely chuckling.

Outriders

(Image credit: Square Enix)

Similarly, once you're past the prologue's incessant montage of cutscenes (I counted at least ten), and People Can Fly is content with having taught you everything about the basics of third-person shooters, the game finally enters its experience proper, endowing your soldier with those aforementioned supernatural powers. And, it's here, in the meat and bones of its core combat gameplay, where Outriders comes out of its self-imposed shell.

While other RPG-infused shooters might let players use their special abilities as a sporadic equaliser, Outriders pushes them to the forefront of every firefight, with fast refresh rates that'll have you using them as often as you reload your gun. You'll need to, as well, since enemies are aggressive, flanking your positions to push you out of cover and force you into offensive plays that prioritise mobility over hunkering down. 

Better yet, those powers feel good, no matter which class you're playing as. The internet appears to have already decided that the time-manipulating Trickster is the best of the bunch so far, but I'm having a lot of fun with my Devastator, and their ability to teleport to the other end of a battlefield amidst a barrage of meteoric rubble. While gunplay doesn't feel quite so impactful, it certainly works as intended, and the variety of enemies and bosses I've gone up against so far suggests Outriders' combat will maintain its novelty through to the end of the campaign, at the very least. 

Riding on the winds of Destiny

Outriders

(Image credit: People Can Fly)

"Dig beneath the surface of Outriders' disappointing first hour, and there's real value to be mined from the investment."

The Outriders demo also gives you access to a number of side quests, alongside an early taste of the game's loot and progression systems. Even in my first two hours past the prologue, I found myself picking up and switching between a number of different weapons and armour, while side missions are far from ancillary afterthoughts, built into the world with context and their own distinct pacing, often crescendoing with a unique encounter and reward. 

In addition, Outriders contains a number of quality of life details which embellish its traditional live service structure, such as the ability to instantly teleport to any fast travel point once you've completed a mission, toggle auto-loot settings to only pick up gear of a certain rarity threshold, and a waypoint system that provides in-game directional assistance at the touch of a button. 

I'm not a huge fan of the game's grimy visual style, which infuses most weapons and armour with a worn grubbiness that doesn't exactly lend itself well to a looter shooter, where you want to be able to style out your newly plundered swag in front of friends. Enoch's alien biodiversity and planetary size does offer room to shake up that aesthetic later down the line, however, so here's hoping the demo section is just one ride in a much larger and more diverse theme park. 

So, dig beneath the surface of Outriders' disappointing first hour, and there's real value to be mined from the investment. I'm still not particularly fond of Alexikins, who continues to be a bit of a douchebag in cutscenes, but he certainly knows his way around a battlefield. Perhaps the best part of the Outriders demo is that any progress you make carries over into the full game once it launches next month. I'll never have to play its banal prologue ever again, in other words, freeing me up to see where People Can Fly takes Outriders once its training wheels are completely unshackled.  

For more, check out the best Call of Duty games to play right now, or watch our full review of Watch Dogs Legion in the video below. 

I'm GamesRadar's Features Writer, which makes me responsible for gracing the internet with as many of my words as possible, including reviews, previews, interviews, and more. Lucky internet!